Eight years ago, Brandon Baker played the snowboarding teen hero of the Disney Channel's ''Johnny Tsunami.'' Now 22, the actor talks about college, fame, and the new adventures of Johnny Kapahala
It’s been eight years since little Johnny Kapahala first snowboarded his way into the hearts of kids everywhere in the Disney Channel’s Johnny Tsunami. Now a mostly grown-up Brandon Baker returns as the lovable action junkie in Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board (June 8 at 8 p.m.). This time, Johnny, now 17, goes home to Hawaii to attend the wedding of his grandfather to a woman with a son of her own. Johnny learns to get along with his new ”uncle,” a 12-year-old who wants nothing to do with his new blended family, and also finds time to learn how to ride a dirtboard — a skateboard with off-road capabilities. We caught up with Baker, now a 22-year-old college senior, just before he stepped back into the limelight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is this sort of like a homecoming for you?
BRANDON BAKER: Definitely. It’s fun to come back and play Johnny for a second time because he was definitely my favorite character — at least the closest to me as a kid. I’m a surfer, a snowboarder…more of a sports guy. I just like being active. We definitely share that. I actually auditioned for the original movie [while wearing] a cast because I’d broken my arm snowboarding.
And being a multi-ethnic actor [Baker is part English, German, Hawaiian, and Filipino], it’s difficult to get roles that are close to the person you are. I would always play the funny best friend, or the orphan, because I never had parents cast [since] no one could ever decipher [my nationality]. I am actually Hawaiian, and to play a Hawaiian character, be part of a family, then, on top of that, to be able to do surfing and snowboarding — it was just heaven for me.
What’s going on with Johnny in this movie?
Five years have passed. In the beginning of the movie he’s still the carefree only child. Then this new little runt comes in and kind of takes away his thunder. He’s always been the only child and now there’s another kid in the family. But he gets over that. There’s a lot of the same things that his grandfather was telling him in the first movie, that he’s finally able to regurgitate and spit back out. So it’s more of a wiser Johnny. Definitely a patient Johnny. I am not as patient as he is.
But it’s got the same thrilling action sequences. Did you have to learn how to dirtboard?
Yes, we trained for about a month out here in California, in Oxnard with [dirtboarding pioneer] Akoni Kama, who plays himself in the movie. Then we went out to New Zealand and trained for two more weeks prior to beginning the shoot.
What was it like filming in New Zealand?
It was fun. New Zealand is a beautiful, beautiful place. The scenery is just gloriously epic. The people are really nice too. Being Polynesian, it was really cool to go to a Polynesian island that had maintained so much of its roots and so much of the language and culture.
Johnny Tsunami was such a big hit when it first aired in 1999. Some say it helped popularize snowboarding with a younger generation. Do you think that can happen with dirtboarding?
Dirtboarding is a more obscure sport, but it can definitely catch on. It kinda has a following in California and Hawaii — but it’s very big in Europe, especially England. I think it’s the final frontier of the board sports. They’ve conquered the concrete with skateboarding, and the snow and the water. Now, in the summer, those people who are usually boarding or don’t have a coastline can just jump on a board and head out. And Disney Channel is such a big thing. You play a mountain-boarding movie a few dozen times and kids are going to catch on.
Do people still recognize you as Johnny?
It’s funny. It still happens. You would think that after a haircut and a few years have gone by… But no, I still have people come up to me. Just the other day, here at [University of California at] Santa Barbara, I was in a liquor store, of all places. These guys were buying a keg, and all three guys stopped when I walked in and went, ”Wait a minute. Are you Johnny Tsunami? Oh my God, man! That’s one of my all-time favorite movies! That was like a cult favorite at our frat house.” And I’m thinking, ”Wow. At the frat house they’re watching Johnny Tsunami.” So yeah, it still happens. It’s nuts how it’s still going.
What are you studying?
Film studies. Yup, kind of getting in front of the camera and behind the camera. Putting it all together.
Do you have aspirations behind the camera?
I do. I really enjoy the filmmaking process as an artistic outlet or as a storytelling avenue. I don’t know if I necessarily want to become a director full-time. It’s mostly that I want to become a filmmaker. I really enjoy acting, but I want to be my own boss one day. There are a lot of stories that need to be told and I’d like to be able to tell them. For me, its the multiethnic stories, as well as the Asian stories. My little group of four or five filmmakers, we’re all very multicultural and have this sort of hapa theme. Hapa is mostly used to define half-Asian and half-anything else. We have a cool melting pot of friends up here in Santa Barbara, so I’m definitely working on making some ethnic pieces.
I graduate this coming June. As far as my life projects, graduating and moving out to L.A. is pretty much what’s on my mind right now. And doing that struggling actor- bohemian lifestyle, probably bussing tables and things of that nature. Hopefully, [it won’t come to that], but I’m definitely one to enjoy the journey. I’m up for anything.